Rocco DeLuca howls like a human tuning fork, bending notes that would make Jeff Buckley play air-guitar in his grave. While it's clear he's been playing the blues since before he could walk, Rocco was never too keen on hanging his "For Sale" sign: "I always thought of the music industry as the drunk girl at a party who forgot who she came with," he once said. But now, with a hooky new album on Kiefer Sutherland's indie Ironworks label, he's ready to take that drunk girl home. Here's the complete transcript from the SURFING interview. -Nathan Myers
SURFING MAGAZINE: YOUR DAD WAS A TOURING BLUES MUSICIAN, RIGHT?
ROCCO DELUCA: Yeah, he played a lot, but for the most part he was more of a myth to me than anything. He would come in and out from touring and I ended up over at my grandmas, maybe jam with me for a couple hours then be on his way. So, that was our basic relationship.
BUT YOU GREW UP AROUND THE BLUES?
Yeah, his influence was big. His brothers played, as well, and we always had string instruments and great records around, so I was lucky enough to get into some great artists early.
AND YOU STARTED PLAYING MUSIC AT A YOUNG AGE?
I was just a fan of records, and just watching people's fingers. Just by osmosis, I learned by watching and listening.
EVER STUDY MUSIC?
Technically, I've never studied anything at all. It was all just through teaching myself and listening and watching.
HOW EARLY DID YOU START PERFORMING?
I started pretty early, 'cause my uncles would have jam sessions and I would sit in. Or even in the living room or the garage, getting to play a little bit. As a kid, it was part of what I did growing up. I was always in it, always around it, I used to fall asleep in the middle of the jam session. I'd find a pillow or my Uncle Joe's kick drum and just crash during it.
YOU'VE OPENED FOR SOME BIG TIME GUYS, RIGHT? JOHNNY CASH, JOHN LEE HOOKER, AND TAJ MAHAL? HOW'D THAT COME ABOUT?
Word of mouth, basically. I would start playing venues, and a few promoters were fans of what I was doing, so they'd hook me up with these artists – so I'd just quit everything I was doing and go for a week. And then I'd come home and go, OK, it's over, but then I'd have to find a new job and start all over. That's what was happening to me for three or four years, just opening up for different artists that I admired. I wasn't selling anything. I was truly just interested in meeting this person that I've listened to their LP so often and see them with my owns eyes. I just wanted to get better at my own craft. I wasn't really promoting anything.
WHAT WAS THE HEAVIEST EXPERIENCES ON THAT LEVEL FOR YOU?
I would say, getting a chance to meet and open for John Lee Hooker for a little while. Then getting to play with Johnny Cash and Bill Munroe at Johnny's house in Tennessee — those are two moments that really stand out.
EITHER OF THOSE GUYS EVER DROP ANY HEAVY KNOWLEDGE ON YOU?
Nothing too directly — just by the way they carried themselves and dealt with people…what I expected of them was absolutely true in that they were just class-act individuals. Just as human beings, they treated everyone they came into contact with the utmost respect. Especially Johnny Cash, he treated everybody like gold. It's no wonder why he was who he was, the guy put out as much as he got. And seeing that was good for me, cause you see a lot of artist nowadays – if you call them artists – who just don't get it yet, and they treat people badly and they're waiting to get to the next level, but the truth is they'll never get there unless they surrender and just be a human being on some level. Seeing an example of that hit me really hard.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT PLAYING THE DOBRO THAT ATTRACTS YOU?
The sound, it struck me really hard when I was growing up. It sounded kind of naked and vulnerable — this really hollow sound — and at the same time it was really aggressive. I think, growing up as a kid I felt the same way about my life and how I reacted to people. So, I think I felt kindred with the sound of it. And then as I dug in and picked up more LPs of artists that I liked, I realized that some of my favorite people telling stories were holding that guitar: Son House, Fred McDowell and John Hurt and Booker White. I was sold. I never turned back.
DOES IT WORK BETTER WITH THE SLIDE THAN A REGULAR GUITAR?
Yeah, with the slide it really comes to life. I'm partial to glass. I take wine bottles after we drink them and I have this whole long procedure to make my own slides. The glass against a wood dobro, I find that to be a cool sound for me. Some people use plastic and metal, but I've always been a fan of the glass bottle neck, cause it was just a little less slick and a little more aggressive sounding.
YOU MAKE 'EM YORUSELF?
Yeah, I read an article one time about a few slide players, folk artists, would go through this whole ritual of making them. And for my personality, I was like, 'Yes.' But only one out of every 12 comes out right, so it takes a long time. They break off wrong or I cut 'em wrong — it's a whole crazy process. Then I spend a week sanding it, so at that point I just take really good care of it so I don't drop it or break it. I only have three left right now, so when I get home I'm going to start having to cut away.